The Role of Women In the Christian Faith: It's Complicated

This is the manuscript of the talk I prepared for an Interfaith Evening of Dialogue hosted by the East Bay Area Pacifica Institute in honor of International Women's Day. The event featured a female Rabbi, a Muslim female thinker, as well as myself, representing the Christian faith. The theme of the event was "The Role of Women in Abrahamic Faiths". Below are my remarks.

I Cannot Be Quiet

This week has been another heavy one. Once again, our feeds have broadcast the multiple shootings across the country of vulnerable black bodies at the hands of empowered law enforcement. Families have tragically lost their loved ones. Countless others have been reminded AGAIN how fragile their lives seem to be. And most discouragingly, the response of many whites has been silence.

Tenaciously Empowered

First published March 12, 2014, on Leah's former blog, "Being in Berkeley".

"Tenaciously empowered."  Those are the words that came to mind yesterday as I drove through the rolling Iowa hills on the outskirts of town, recognizing in a real way that the number of times I make that drive has become finite.  My days in Iowa City are numbered.  (87 days, to be exact.) The last great obstacle to be overcome has been miraculously removed.  We sold our house in less than a day.

"How does it feel?" my friends ask me.  They have been a part of this long arduous journey.  They know the ups and downs.  They have been there for some of the most searing moments along the way, when the fog of painful and confusing circumstances was so dense that it was impossible to do anything but blindly stumble forward, grasping at air, and hoping beyond hope that we were stumbling behind Jesus.  They stood in the fog with me, aware of the real fear that I had lost my way, committed to walking alongside me come what may.

And so they ask, "How does it feel?"  How does it feel to have the fog blown away?  To, in an instant, have the haze clear, have the valleys filled in, the mountains made low, and finally a clean vantage point to see that which we've been chasing with obstructed view for over a decade?

There are not words for how it feels.  I am aware of my limitation.  I have no capacity to express the abundant gratitude within me.  I am finite, struggling to allow myself to feel infinite thanksgiving.  It is as if that is what I believe my circumstances merit, but I can't stretch myself to be big enough to say the, "Thank You" that this moment deserves.  I feel small in the face of such grace.  And I humbly offer my sincere heart, knowing how little it is.

But I also feel the surge deep within me.  It is like a fire in my belly; like a burning in my bones.  It is fearless.  It is powerful.  I am being released.  I am feeling tenaciously empowered.  This grace can't just be for me.  This grace is the fuel of a mission.  This grace I owe my life to.  This grace must be fruitful and I will give every bit of myself to doing my part to assure that it is.

It isn't just about the house.  It's about the journey.  

The journey started 13 years ago, in 2001.  I found myself in a powerful prayer time at a church conference.  And there I heard in my spirit a divine voice speak to me with total clarity, "Someday you guys are going to start a church."  I had no idea what it meant.  I thought God would call my then-fiancee to be a pastor.  I didn't know that in that moment something profound and powerful was being conceived, not in Jason, but in me.

Over the years, I've often viewed this church planting dream as a pregnancy - a very long pregnancy.  It began in that moment of conception.  For years it remained a tiny seed, too small to be observed by those outside, but Jesus was creating in me, even when I didn't understand what or why.  There were those trips to San Francisco around 2003 and 2004, where my heart burned and I found myself weeping over the city as I walked its streets.  I was being stirred internally (my own version of morning sickness, perhaps), but I didn't understand what it meant.

And then in 2006, the amazing circumstances that brought me to getting it.  The, "oh......I'm pregnant" moment.  The revelation and recognition that Jesus had put the stuff in me to start a faith community for the people that stirred my heart.  I said "yes" to being a solo senior pastor church planter, though I had no framework or model for what that would mean as a woman, a wife, a mother.  So Jesus brought me a big sister named Adey.  She was a woman who had walked this path, and invited me to walk behind her and beside her.  The first weekend we really met, she looked at me and said, "Leah, it's as if you are Mary and I'm Elizabeth, and the child in my womb is leaping to meet you."  Indeed.

There have been other significant moments along the way.  Like in 2008, when Adey brought me along with her to a conference in Boston.  There, through more surprising and miraculous moments, Jesus began to speak to me clearly about Berkeley, California as our ultimate destination.   There was 2012, which I had deemed our "Year of Discernment", when we submitted ourselves to persistently asking Jesus "Is it really Berkeley?" and "What about summer 2014?"  By the end of the year we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt the answer was "yes", we had to at least give it a shot.  Our trip to Berkeley at the end of the year felt like an ultrasound, like the moment you look at the screen and see the thing that's been wiggling inside of you and you think, "Holy sh*t!  There's a baby in there!"  

But there have also been the years when the pregnancy felt quite vulnerable; when I feared I was destined for a still birth.  The years I watched Jason's parents’ marriage fall apart.  They had been our models for marriage and ministry, as former church planters themselves.  The wreckage of their failed church and failed marriage not only shook our hope, but it shook Jason's very faith in Jesus to the core.  I longed to rescue him, rescue his faith, bring it back to life, but I knew that was not my work to do.  I had to let Jesus speak to him, nurture him, and bring him to new life, and slowly, over time, Jesus did in profound ways.

There was also 2013, the year I'd naively called the "Year of Preparation."  Naively, because I had no idea what that preparation would be.  I had no idea the testing I'd endure; the rejection I'd experience from the people who were supposed to be with me and for me as I began to honestly share what I'd been called to.  I had no idea that preparation would include this level of isolation.  And fear.  And grief.  It was as if the moment of delivery was quickly approaching and all of my midwives had abandoned me in the final hour.  I was preparing to give birth, I could not stop the child from coming, but I was utterly alone.  And there I was, in a fog, with a heavy belly hanging low, gasping and grasping for Jesus, hoping beyond hope that he was there.

And then 2014 came.  And one month in, Jason had two job offers.  Competing job offers, both of which offered provision beyond what we could have dreamed of, one of which he joyfully accepted.  Our move: completely covered in extravagant style, from packing, to temporary housing, to money to cover the cost of selling our house.  We blushed to accept it.  And I started to have hope that maybe this baby would be ok, maybe even I would actually be ok, too, midwives or not.

And finally, Monday happened.  We sold our house in less than a day.  Full-price offer.  Perfect closing date for our family plans.  Our realtor was as shocked as we were.  All of the fog had been cleared in stunning fashion.  And I woke up Tuesday morning tenaciously empowered.  After giving birth to three children naturally I know well the adrenaline that kicks in in the final stage of labor.  It doesn't matter how desolate things have looked, how tired you are, how much you vomited, how your back hurt like hell, when that baby is ready to come all you have is tenacious power and surreal, intense force beyond measure.  Absolutely nothing can stop you from bringing forth the life within you.  It is beyond you.  It is bigger than you.  All you can do is surrender everything you have and puuuuuuuush.

And that is how I feel today.  I feel empowered.  Like there is something being born in Berkeley that I get to participate in, and I can't wait to see what it's going to be.  Now is the time, this is the season, for a new thing to come. A new faith community passionate about Jesus, passionate about open access for all, passionate about living life to the fullest, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves. This is Jesus' heart, Jesus’ joy, I'm just along for the ride.  Get ready, Berkeley.  I'm coming.  And I'm ready to move some mountains.